INDIANAPOLIS—From Nov. 26 through the early evening of April 5, the 2020-21 Gonzaga Bulldogs felt like a Death Star laying waste to everything in their path.
They opened the season with an even-more-convincing-than-the-final-margin 102-90 victory over preseason No. 6 Kansas. The following morning, the Zags bludgeoned Auburn by 23 points. Game No. 3 against West Virginia got a little dicey when Jalen Suggs suffered a lower-leg injury and Drew Timme fouled out on an off night, but they still eked out the victory.
From there, it was 27 consecutive wins by double digits.
Fresh off a COVID-19 pause, they dropped 99 points on Iowa.
Seven days later, they eviscerated Virginia's usually stingy defense for 98 points in a blowout.
All five of those games against major-conference opponents were played on a neutral floor, as were the 87-71 win over Oklahoma, the 83-65 win over Creighton and the 85-66 win over USC en route to the Final Four.
Say what you will about the West Coast Conference, but Gonzaga proved time and again that it could spank teams from the "big leagues." (Also, BYU was quite good this year and still thrice lost to the Zags by double digits.)
Heading into the Final Four, it really felt like the only strategy for putting up a fight against Gonzaga was to injure one star player, foul out another one and then hope for the best.
In the national semifinal, UCLA played what seemed to be the most perfect possible game against the Zags, making unnecessarily difficult shot after absurdly challenging mid-range jumper. The Bruins got Timme into some foul trouble and they mostly held Suggs and Corey Kispert in check. Even that was only enough to get the game into overtime, where UCLA lost on a last-second shot for the ages.
That UCLA game felt like the one chance to blow up the Death Star. And after that mission failed, regardless of how great Baylor was this season, it just felt like the Bears were going to run into a buzzsaw in the national championship.
After all, if Evan Mobley and gigantic USC couldn't do anything to slow down Timme, what hope did Baylor—a team without a single frontcourt player in any NBA mock drafts—have of subduing Mustache Mania?
Turns out, the Bears had a pretty doggone good plan of forcing him out to the perimeter to even touch the ball and then wearing him out on the defensive perimeter when the Zags switched every ball screen.
While neutralizing Timme along the perimeter, Baylor simply dominated on the glass, finishing plus-16 against a Gonzaga team that had an average rebound margin of plus-7.5 this season. Baylor also won the turnover battle (14-9) and at one point had 10 made three-pointers to Gonzaga's one. (It felt more like 20 to one, though, since Baylor so frequently got the offensive rebound when it did miss.)
The Bears simply dominated a team that didn't even seem beatable for most of the year.
And if this Gonzaga team could get blown out on what wasn't even that terrible a shooting night, can we ever expect anyone to go undefeated again?
"It's weird, I never felt like we played with that weight (of trying to go undefeated) all year," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "I always felt like we were the aggressor and we were always, I call it attack mode. And we just ran into a team tonight that was, they were the aggressor, clearly."
Baylor is very much a deserving national champion. Don't think for a second that I'm trying to say or do anything here to devalue or delegitimize what the Bears accomplished. I was expecting a Gonzaga-Baylor national championship game all season long.
But prior to Monday night, Baylor was just a very good team, while Gonzaga was the greatest team in KenPom.com history.
The Bulldogs entered the national championship with an adjusted efficiency margin of +38.13. The next-best team was 2014-15 Kentucky with a rating of +36.91. Next-best after those Wildcats were the 2008 Kansas Jayhawks at +35.21. Beyond that, 2018-19 Virginia at +34.22 and 2001-02 Duke at +34.19.
All excellent teams, but all in Gonzaga's rear-view mirror.
And that makes sense, because even that almost-undefeated Kentucky team had some warts and off nights. Those Wildcats needed overtime to survive each of their first two SEC games and had five other regular-season wins by single digits. Including the NCAA tournament, they were held to 70 or fewer points on 18 occasions.
Even compared to that greatest-in-recent-history Kentucky squad, this Gonzaga team was clearly different and special.
"You really do forget what it's like to lose," Kispert said in the postgame Zoom conference. "And every time it happens, it doesn't feel good. Thankfully I've had not very many of them over my career, whether it's in the regular season or in the tournament."
Twenty-seven consecutive wins by double digits is a feat we almost certainly will not see again.
Prior to the Final Four, Gonzaga's average margin of victory was 23.1 points per game, which is just absurd. The Zags were damn near a full Luka Garza better than their competition every night.
They set the NCAA record for two-point percentage for a season.
Even after getting trounced by 16 points by Baylor, Gonzaga still finished well ahead of the Bears on KenPom and second only to 38-1 Kentucky in the site's history.
To repeat: different and special.
Had they won the game and finished off the undefeated season, there would have been an immediate and furious debate about where Gonzaga belongs in hoops lore. Given how drastically the game has changed in the past few decades since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers last ran the table—better scouting, recruiting and transfers, players leaving early for the NBA, the inherent randomness of the three-point line, more games per season, more NCAA tournament games etc.—I probably would have been leading the charge to crown Gonzaga as the greatest men's college basketball team of all time.
As is, we're left to seriously doubt if we'll ever see a perfect season again.
Then again, up until a few years ago, I had spent most of my life doubting I would even see a team get to the NCAA tournament with a zero in the loss column.
I was barely out of diapers when Jerry Tarkanian led the Runnin' Rebels to the brink of perfection in 1991, and then 23 years passed before Wichita State reeled off 34 consecutive wins to do the unthinkable.
Those Shockers didn't feel like that serious of a threat to win it all, but when Kentucky fell short the following year, it felt like that was going to be the last juggernaut that we ever saw.
But then Gonzaga felt like even more of an inevitable champion this year, and would anyone be all that surprised if they threatened to run the table again next season?
Suggs and Kispert are both all but certain to embark on the next stage of their careers as likely lottery picks. Joel Ayayi might leave for the draft, too. But Timme, Andrew Nembhard and Anton Watson are all likely to return in 2021-22.
They'll be joined by 247Sports top-10 recruit Hunter Sallis and top-60 recruit Kaden Perry. All of 247Sports' recruiting experts believe it's only a matter of time before No. 1 overall recruit Chet Holmgren also chooses the Zags. UNC transfer and former 5-star recruit Walker Kessler could also land at Gonzaga.
Factor in the potential breakout of guys like Julian Strawther, Oumar Ballo or Dominick Harris and there's a good reason the Zags are No. 1 in basically every way-too-early top 25 ranking you can find.
Will they be as good as this year's team was?
Don't bet on it.
However, there's going to be enough talent on that roster to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team once again. And maybe next April—after national championship losses in 2017 and 2021—they'll finally be able to bring a title back to Spokane, Washington.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.